In the last several years quinoa has been at the forefront of new and notable food trends. Once unheard of, its availability is all but ubiquitous today. It can be found on restaurant menus, conventional store shelves and as an ingredient in many everyday products, from frozen entrees, snacks and pastas to breads. But quinoa is only one of several grains that belong to a broader category known as ancient grains.
Technically no formal definition exists, but it is commonly accepted that ancient grains have remained basically unchanged for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, which is one of the major reasons for their appeal. Many are able to thrive and grow in harsher environmental conditions with less fertilizer and irrigation — meaning less impact on the environment. With a variety of options available they are also well suited for certain restricted diets and their unique textures and tastes provide an opportunity for true culinary exploration. And if that isn’t enough, they’re good for you, too.
Generally speaking, ancient grains can be divided into two categories — those containing wheat along with gluten, and those that are gluten-free.
Among the ancient forms of wheat are freekeh, spelt, einkorn, farro and kamut, the commercial term for Khorasan wheat. Compelling studies comparing ancient wheat to modern varieties suggest they may be more nutrient-rich than their modern counterparts, but more research is needed to confirm these findings. Nevertheless, as whole grains they are inherently nutritious and provide another avenue for meeting your daily requirements in forms virtually unchanged from their origins.
You may have also heard about studies that suggest some of the ancient wheat grains may cause less reactions in people with gluten-sensitivity, but don’t be misled. It is important to note that reactions still occurred — meaning no form of wheat, ancient or otherwise, is ever suitable or safe for people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance.
Gluten-free ancient grains
Included in the gluten-free category of ancient grains are teff, sorghum and millet, and the pseudocereals quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat. An interesting tidbit is that the pseudocereals aren’t grains at all, they are seeds. What makes these three grains unique is that they contain all the essential amino acids, specifically lysine, which is typically not available in adequate amounts in other grains. In order for a protein to be complete it not only needs to have all the essential amino acids, but the amino acids must be present in sufficient proportions. Of the pseudocereals quinoa and amaranth qualify as complete proteins, making them great options for people following vegetarian or vegan diets.
According to Monash University, certain ancient grains, both wheat and gluten-free, may also be appropriate for people following a FODMAP diet, which is a diet sometimes used to help treat gut-related issues. The grains they identified as suitable include sorghum, millet, farro, freekeh, kamut, spelt, amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa.
As whole grains, the ancient grains are unquestionably rich sources of important vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients, but they’re also easy to prepare and extremely versatile. To start, simply use them in place of rice, couscous or oatmeal. But if you are looking for a bit more culinary inspiration, consider visiting the Happy Apple Natural Kitchen blog, at wendy-mcmillan.squarespace.com, by local writer and recipe developer Wendy McMillan. The blog features uniquely delicious recipes, such as whole grain millet bars and chocolate coconut amaranth pudding or the Simply Ancient Grains cookbook by Maria Speck, which is as visually appealing as her recipes are delicious.
Inspiration isn’t always about what comes next, but can often be found in what has come before, so perhaps these old grains will find a permanent place in your healthy future.
Constance Roark is a registered dietitian nutritionist and the president and founder of CMR Solutions. Visit cmrsolutionsllc.com.